The Toll and the Silence

In an industry devoted to surface appeal, some female casino workers lead lives of quiet desperation. Two UNR professors have now given them a chance to speak up.

Female service employees make up the majority of the Nevada casino workforce, but they’re underrepresented in the published history of the industry, which is almost always told from the point of view of the men who financed, designed and built the state’s casinos.

In their recent book, Casino Women: Courage in Unexpected Places (Cornell University Press, $30), University of Nevada, Reno professors Susan Chandler and Jill B. Jones decided to give these women a chance to speak out—and the stories they were told could fill a psychologist’s diagnostic manual.

The book contains a decade’s worth of interviews with dozens of women, from the housekeepers and cocktail servers who helped unionize the Las Vegas Strip to the countless unknowns who toil in the bowels of giant hotels.

The authors discovered a world where workers pop tranquilizers, antidepressants and pain medications to function. A world where financial dependence upon the job fuels paranoia and tension among co-workers competing for shifts. A world where stress, overwork and embarrassment fuels self-loathing and alienation from family, friends and other activities outside of work.

The stories of this world are gaming-industry stories, Nevada stories. But, taken together, they tell a larger tale of deep disenchantment with corporate America.

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The nostalgia for a time before “faceless” corporate ownership runs especially deep in Nevada, where a colorful history of criminal but paternalistic enterprise beckons from the recent past. Casino workers with more than 30 years of experience often speak fondly of the organized crime figures who once owned the majority of Las Vegas casinos. Yes, there were those fabled backroom beatings and contract killings, but workers say the old bosses treated employees like an extended family and didn’t micromanage like today’s corporate chieftains.

Today’s high-stakes competition has no doubt improved the workplace in some respects. Some women interviewed for the book acknowledge the days before corporatization, when women weren’t hired to deal cards or supervise other employees. Most companies on the Strip chose to make peace with the Culinary Union rather than face picket lines, boosting pay and benefits, and raising those standards for non-union employers. But for most of the workers profiled in Casino Women, such improvements always come with a cost.

Consider a cocktail server’s assessment of the high heels that cause foot deformities yet are an integral part of her big-tip job: “Drugs help you wear heels, drinking helps you wear heels, anything that takes your mind off the pain.” Or the waitress who finds a convenient way to ease her worsening work stress by sticking around after her shift: “You’re spending your tips every day. You’re scrounging around for money to pay your rent, pay your bills. You’re not spending time with your family because you’re at the machines, or you’re after-work drinking.” One dealer reveals her inability to live a normal life: “I didn’t want to smile once I got home, and I was in a bad mood most of the time because I’d had to stuff my feelings down all day, and maybe I had 17 different people tell me what a rotten person I was because I took their money.” Another dealer says she feels trapped in a job she’s not proud of but can’t quit because she covets the tip earnings that allow her to buy things many others can’t afford: “The last couple of years I’m just to the point that I want to cry when I have to go to work.”

A casino marketing manager who says she has no time for a life outside of work says she wants to leave her company so she can date, marry and have children. A waitress says she can count on one hand the number of times she was home for the holidays in 14 years. “That is a big loss—you kind of lose track of what it is to be a family.” Such stories are hardly unique to casinos or the post-recession era. But they add depth to our understanding of an insular industry that is mostly described through official channels and publicly promotes the importance of its front-line workers. Many casinos insist that success or failure turns on the happiness of their workers, or “team members,” who interact most with customers.

When casino workers are hired, they typically agree not to speak with reporters or other members of the public about their experiences at work. But with backgrounds in social activism and mental-health counseling, the authors offered workers two things that were hard to resist: a sympathetic ear and the luxury of time. Interviews often stretched for hours, enabling subjects to get comfortable with the authors and open up. (The authors also granted most of the women anonymity, assigning false names and also concealing the names of their employers, which are simply identified as casinos in Reno and Las Vegas.) For all of the painful stories they gathered, Chandler and Jones say Las Vegas workers have some advantages over their counterparts in other cities. Much of the credit, they say, goes to Las Vegas’ unions for continuing to represent employee interests in a shareholder-driven industry.

“Most people don’t think of Las Vegas when they think about social justice, but they should,” Chandler says. “You have these women [union organizers] who are pretty invisible but doing great things. Those are some real differences between Las Vegas and other towns where minimum wage prevails. In some ways, Las Vegas is a model for paying people decently in a way that has not hurt the economy.”

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Ultimately, though, Casino Women is a study of the physical and mental damage inflicted by workplace controls and the emotional reward for workers who overcome controls they view as oppressive.

“They’re very tight and very cheap,” one of several housekeepers interviewed for the book says of the corporation that bought out her employer a few years ago. “In my department, they prohibit us to talk when we work. Why? I’m just working with my hands. They say, ‘No, because we lose production.’ They don’t care about employees like a human being … they think we’re robots.”

Companies that are no longer equipped to treat people as individuals create an atmosphere of despair and low self-esteem that permeates the community, Chandler says. “It does something really terrible to your well-being and the atmosphere of the community to just keep your head down.”

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